Clinging on to fiction – Umair Javed

54

THE aftermath of the brutal and utterly tragic murder of Noor Mukaddam is following familiar patterns seen in instances of high-profile cases of gender-based violence. Sections of the Pakistani internet-using public, intelligentsia, and state elite, particularly men, resort to a range of familiar tropes to analyse such tragedies and provide prescriptions. Such voices become especially loud in response to any sustained anger and advocacy from gender rights activists and organisations.

What are these tropes that are dragged out with such tiresome persistence? The first is locating the logic of gender-based violence in some aspect of cultural Westernisation. The thought process behind it suggests that as people (especially women) become more deeply embedded in Western concepts of gender rights, freedoms, mobility, and the right to bodily and ideational autonomy, they become more vulnerable to gender-based crimes. An associated logic — one put forward by the prime minister himself — is that men exposed to Westernisation (or sexualised entertainment more broadly) are more prone to acting out on base, primal emotions, which raises risks of such crimes.

The only (partially) correct aspect of this assertion is its starting point that gender-based violence is a cultural and societal phenomenon. However that’s true only insofar as how different groups in society see each other and themselves, and how they conceive of their power relationships, are central aspects of any culture — Western, Eastern, modern or traditional.

The leap from this basic aspect to an almost biological link with lust-driven men and the innate vulnerability of women who dare push any societal convention is one that is not grounded in any actual analysis of societal behaviour across different contexts. Violence against women takes place in societies with different cultural configurations and varying exposure to what is often clumsily clubbed as the ‘West’. This is exactly why the solution offered by those voicing such tropes — reversion to tradition by privatising women’s existence even more and keeping them locked up, controlling their movement, dictating their actions — is so ill-founded. It ignores the pervasiveness of violence and transgression in the private domain and sets aside the importance of women’s autonomy of accessing the state and other forms of redress in actually correcting it.

A second trope, one hot on the heels of the first one, is a quick disavowal of gender-based responsibility in the face of advocacy and anger from women. This usually takes the shape of not all men, attacks against ‘Westernised’ feminism and Aurat March for raising these issues, and painstaking efforts to cast violence as a truly exceptional event, rather than something that is highly pervasive (as any reasonable estimate would confirm). This comes from a place of personal distaste at being associated with violence, and from a rejection of any responsibility that men have in upholding the cultural norms that create power imbalances and generate (violent) offences.

This position too comes from a failure to understand how individuals function as part of larger groups within society, how personal actions while being shaped by broader social forces (existing cultural norms, ideas) also reproduce the same. So when women say All Men, they are pointing out a very basic reality that in a society with extreme gender-based imbalances, all men play a role in sustaining the status quo. Some do it through the use of naked violence, while others do it in more mundane ways such as discriminating against women in the household or the workplace, placing restrictions on choice, perpetuating harmful stereotypes, etc.

Lastly, the third trope is one that mixes gender anxieties with nationalistic fervour. The most common response in this vein is to again challenge advocacy and the voicing of anger by women by saying that gender crimes take place the world over, that Pakistan’s traditional values actually keep women safe, that Scandinavia has cases of extreme violence as well, and that raising concerns about the safety of women in Pakistan amounts to self-flagellation and purposefully portraying a bad image of the country.

This last one comes from both a place of extreme bad faith as well as a complete ignorance of the state of affairs in the country (and the world over); both are common conditions afflicting Pakistani men.

For starters, Pakistanis concerned with gender crimes and the state of inequity in the country will naturally only talk about their own country. What happens in Vanuatu or Ecuador or Norway is not and should not be of primary concern in the aftermath of such instances. Secondly, Pakistan consistently ranks in the bottom quartile of all assessments on gender equality. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report for 2021, which compares economic opportunity, political participation, health, and education across gender, ranks Pakistan 153 out of 156 countries. The UN Gender Development Index ranks the country at 163 out of 166.

Super-patriots can dismiss these as elaborate Western conspiracies against the country, and their echoing by local gender/human rights activists as the workings of native informants looking for donor money. But they will have to jump through several more hoops and contort their minds a little more to deny how unsafe women feel on a regular basis, the ludicrously low conviction rate for gender-based crimes, the persistently low female labour force participation rate in the urban economy, the high gender wage gap, and the near-criminal persistence of high maternal fatalities. Simply put these are all outcomes of a country, as far as both its state and society are concerned, that does not care about its women citizens.

The road to justice for victims such as Noor is a long and arduous one in the current context. It requires the criminal justice system to work contrary to how it is designed, but for this to amount to something substantial in the future, it also requires society to discard much of the fiction that it continues to cling on to.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2021